Impressive graphics showing mankind’s domination of the earth

The numbers don’t Lie: Humans are ruining this planet. Carbon levels in the atmosphere and sea temperatures are rising. Arctic sea ice is declining and biodiversity is declining — and no, the exploding number of chickens doesn’t count as biodiversity.

To understand and address these issues, scientists and policymakers need data—precise numbers that show how homo sapiens has changed almost the entire earth in one way or another. To that end, a team of researchers launched the Human Impacts Database, or HuID, a collection of over 300 (so far) critical numbers, from sea-level rise to the number of calories we as a species get from animal products.

“Getting the numbers right is the first step in trying to understand these systems, and we can learn a lot just by looking at the numbers,” says Rachel Banks, a biophysicist at Caltech and the Chan-Zuckerberg BioHub and one of the Lead authors of an article describing HuID that will be published in the journal today sample. “And of course we want to keep these numbers up to date and continue to expand the database, but we also want to try to understand the Earth systems better.”

It’s worth going to the database and poking around. Banks and her colleagues combed through all manner of information sources, from scientific papers to government reports, to find numbers ranging from measuring atmospheric processes to energy use to mining. But if you spend enough time with HuID, you will find patterns. After all, the systems of the earth are closely connected. “It seemed to us that a couple of key narratives emerged that tie the story together in some way,” says study co-author Rob Phillips, a physicist at Caltech and the Chan-Zuckerberg BioHub. “One of them is: What are we eating? And another is: Where do we get our water from? And then the last one is about power. If you follow those three threads, this is a huge, huge chunk of history.”

I was lost in HuID for hours. I’ve singled out 14 indicators that are particularly meaningful, important or just plain fascinating – along with the charts from the report showing their growth over time – that I think help shed light on these three threads.

Figure: Human Impacts Database

First and foremost: global warming

Thanks to humans loading the atmosphere with excess carbon, global surface temperatures have steadily increased since 1850, as shown in the graph above. They are now about 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than they were in pre-industrial times. That creeps close to the optimistic Paris Agreement target of keeping that temperature below 1.5 degrees C and an absolute threshold of 2 degrees. But it’s important to note that we’re talking about global averages – so some places are warming up much faster than others. The Arctic, for example, is warming 4.5 times faster than the global average because the darker water below absorbs more solar energy as it loses more sea ice.

Figure: Human Impacts Database

Rising sea level, from two angles

As temperatures rise, glacier melt accelerates, raising sea levels (shown in the graph above in millimeters above mean sea level since 1900).

Figure: Human Impacts Database

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